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TOM HAWTHORN

Flower power on West Fourth Avenue Add to ...

Once, West Fourth Avenue was home to head shops and record stores. Today, it is lined by upscale boutiques and fine-dining restaurants.

Then, tie-dye T-shirts. Now, Lululemon.

Then, hippie coffeehouses. Now, Starbucks.

Then, slow service at the Naam vegetarian restaurant. Today, slow service at the Naam vegetarian restaurant.

These days, the merchants association sponsors an annual Summer of Love (previously Hippie Daze), encouraging shoppers to visit the avenue with the slogan, “What a trip!”

Looks like The Man won.

It is easy to resort to cliché when looking back at the 1960s, an era easily lampooned by us 50-year-old whippersnappers.

A person lucky enough to be 21 during the Summer of Love is today aged 64, perhaps using marijuana not as a mind-altering recreation but as a pain-easing medication.

Back then, the promise of an exciting, freer way of life lured young people from the region and across the continent. They flocked to the Kitsilano neighbourhood, where large houses became crash pads. Cheap rents made it possible to live a modest life away from the shackles of 9-to-5 clock punching. The nearby beach and temperate climate encouraged a year-long summer holiday.

West Fourth became the Rainbow Road, a way station on the hippie highway.

Lawrence Aronsen, who has written City of Love & Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties (New Star), says the hippie movement here was “an American cultural flow across the border. That’s the catalyst.”

“It’s the Baby Boomers coming of age, trying to find their identity. The hippie thing is a nice way to counter the mass consumption of the ’50s and ’60s.”

His book is a sober-minded account of a wild flowering in the city’s history – from the arrival of hippiedom and its embrace of peace and love; human be-ins and pot smoke-ins; the Gastown police riot and the appearance of the underground newspaper The Georgia Straight; a Jerry Rubin-led occupation of a campus faculty club and the Yippies’ cross-border invasion of Blaine, Wash.; the creation of a free university and the founding of Greenpeace; an anti-prison Be-Out and the formation of a squatters camp to stop a development at the entrance to Stanley Park; and, a general discombobulation of attitudes towards fashion and grooming and sex, the latter giving Vancouver a reputation as a Sodom of the North. Oh, and apparently the freaks and radicals were listening to groovy sounds, too.

Mr. Aronsen, a 62-year-old history professor at the University of Alberta, was born in Victoria and raised in working-class neighbourhoods in suburban Vancouver. His cultural influences were Californian. He dressed like the Beach Boys and twice hitchhiked south to surf, returning home to become “a weekend hippie.”

What would the “small-l libertarian” Lawrence Aronsen of 2010 tell the “mild-mannered Maoist revolutionary” campus radical of 1970?

“That I survived. I did some crazy things. My craziness is a kind of Canadian craziness. I knew after just two LSD trips that it’s not productive.”

Not all his contemporaries were as fortunate. Some were lost to drugs. Others never recovered from knowing they had already enjoyed the best days of their lives.

Originally, some Fourth Avenue merchants reacted to the hippies as though an alien life form had landed in their midst.

“They saw them as seedy characters,” he said, “but they didn’t see them as dangerous.”

He thinks the reaction to the tumult of the times was far more benign here than south of the border.

In Chicago, police struck hippies with billy clubs. In Vancouver, city council struck a Special Committee on Hippies.

Even the most notorious crackdown of the era, when police attacked pot smokers and bystanders in the infamous Gastown Riot of 1971, was followed the next weekend by a street party during which free hot dogs and watermelon were distributed by merchants, while police ignored public displays of pot puffing.

Confrontation with authority initiated dialogue, not violence. Dig it.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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